Dear Jonah Goldberg,
I’m writing this letter as a fan – I’ve tremendous respect for the pioneering work you did at National Review Online, your attempts to inject humor into political writing, and the enjoyable debates you’ve done with Peter Beinart. But I’m also a friendly critic, here to challenge your take on the current state of the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country. Perhaps I can persuade you that certain of your positions are wrongly held, though I’d be as satisfied were I moved by counterarguments.
It is actually surprising that the gulf separating our attitudes is so deep. As a native of Orange County, California, the people I most respect in this world – my parents and two sets of grandparents – are all self-described conservative Republicans. My involvement in politics began in response to what I regarded as grave flaws in leftist campus politics at Pomona College, and the dubious actions of Democrats during the Gray Davis era in California, when I witnessed giveaways to public employee unions that were arguably the most fiscally irresponsible measures in state history. The political writers I’ve read whose work most resonates are Burke, Hayek, and Milton Friedman. The bulk of President Obama’s domestic agenda strikes me as ill conceived at best—I worry about the unabated growth of the federal government, America’s perilous fiscal situation, and an approach to governance that relies on the enduring wisdom of elected and appointed officials.
But try as I might, I cannot muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party, I am profoundly disillusioned by the state of the conservative movement, and though my background and political beliefs ought to make me a lock for GOP presidential candidates – were they running, I’d certainly prefer Ford, Reagan, George Bush Sr. or Bob Dole to a second Obama term – I am a solidly undecided voter as 2012 approaches.
Since I sometimes write for right-of-center political sites, this results in my being labeled an “apostate” or “dissident” conservative (or a RINO traitor, despite my never having claimed to be a Republican), though I’ll bet that you and I have as many positions in common as I do with Reihan Salam, or Ross Douthat, or Ramesh Ponnuru, let alone the average Democrat. Whatever my label among pundits, however, I submit that the GOP is in trouble if it cannot convince voters like me that they’re the best choice at the ballot box.
Why can’t I muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party? The core reason is my suspicion that were they returned to power tomorrow, things would turn out exactly as they did when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House. It’s a concern you addressed a year ago in a Los Angeles Times column titled “The GOP Looking Glass: Does the Defeat of George W. Bush Mean a Defeat for Conservatism?” You and I agree that President Bush’s worst failures weren’t particularly conservative, and shouldn’t reflect badly on that political philosophy.
But I think that your column – like the rest of your writing – elides the significant responsibility that the conservative movement bears for the candidacy, election, policy agenda, and grave failures of the Bush Administration, and the Republicans that controlled Congress for much of his tenure. You wrote, as apologia, “Dissent from Bush was muted for years, in large part because of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Conservatives, right or wrong, rallied to support their president, particularly in the face of shrill partisan attacks from Democrats who seemed more interested in tearing down the commander in chief than winning a war.”
I see that as damning. The conservative movement’s reaction to an ongoing war and shrill attacks from partisan Democrats is to rally around a Republican president, even as he pursues ill-conceived agenda items – and the problem this augers for the future is that when a Republican is next elected to the White House, there are inevitably going to be an ongoing war on terrorism and shrill partisan attacks from Democrats. Is there any evidence that the conservative movement has unlearned its damaging habit of meting out loyalty in direct proportion to the ferocity of liberal attacks? I’d argue that there isn’t, and cite Sarah Palin as exhibit A, though there is other evidence. Take the pop-up ad on the American Spectator’s Web site, where Mark Levin says that it’s one of his favorite publications, not because it’s well reported, or right on the merits, but because “it drives liberals crazy.” Fox News and Human Events use this same trope. Too often the right’s actions are determined by the passions of the most vitriolic folks on the left, a reflex that hasn’t served conservatives well, but that I’ve seen offered as a defense of the right more than as a self-criticism of it.
Of course, you’d be right to say that some conservatives criticized George W. Bush rather consistently—though none who are running in 2012, insofar as I know—and you might even argue that some of the anger on the right these days, though directed at Barack Obama, is as much a release of pent up frustration from the Bush years. Several folks said as much at Tea Parties earlier this year. You’ve even written that the race in New York’s 23rd Congressional District is significant insofar as it shows that a community of Republican moderates are now rallying behind a conservative candidate.
I’m agnostic on the implications of that race. What I fear, however, is a narrative on the right that explains away George W. Bush’s failures by saying that his compassionate conservatism was suspect from the beginning, that now we know better, and that the right will finally see dividends if only it elects real conservatives to Congress, rather than RINOs.
It isn’t that I don’t understand why some are adopting that theory. It surely resonates if you’re a member of the conservative base who is at a loss to explain how the right accomplished so little, and harmed so much, during its time heading all three branches of government.
But if the base imagines that the problem was insufficiently conservative political leaders, and that the solution is getting rid of “squishies,” they’ve mis-analyzed the past.
The late-is-better-than-never laments about George W. Bush never seem to acknowledge that the missteps of the last 8 years were also the fault of people like Tom Delay, a guy you’d never hear called a “compassionate conservative” or a RINO, but who bears significant responsibility for the fiscally reckless prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the K street project, damage done to the GOP by the Jack Abramoff scandal, etc. Even a cursory look at the main players behind the scenes during the Bush Administration demonstrated that the problem wasn’t grounded in political beliefs – earmarks aren’t “compassionate conservatism,” and Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter weren’t leading the legislative agenda – it was grounded in corrupt, largely conservative partisan Republicans whose indefensible acts went unchallenged by much of movement conservatism, because Ronald Reagan commanded that Republicans should never attack each other, or the Democrats are worse, or political winners don’t unilaterally disarm themselves, or the angry liberals were so unhinged that I felt I had to defend my guys, or Okay, I see your point, but this isn’t the time.
When is the time?
Despite the last 8 years, which should’ve taught the lesson that wrongheaded behavior must be challenged – even when your political allies are engaging in it – I see ample evidence of the same old attitude throughout the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Yes, the attacks on President Obama and Congressional Democrats are increasingly effective. Perhaps there is even resurgence in principled conservatism among some GOP voters.
Even so, electing Republicans, or even conservatives, isn’t an end in itself – it’s supposed to be a means to the end of improving the country by governing better than any of the alternatives. As Michael Brendan Dougherty recently noted on Twitter, the conservative movement “has failed to shrink scope of government (besides some taxes) for 70 years.” It is “good at feathering its nests, not advancing its agenda.” Should it take power again, can we expect “more bailouts? More unwinnable wars? I’m serious. How is it different this time?”
These are vital questions. I pose them as someone who wants to vote for a resurgent, functional conservatism that finds its political home in the GOP, but I think the only way you get there is by routing out intellectual and financial corruption within the movement, developing a successful strategy for actually governing if you’re elected, tempering ideology with pragmatism, and obliterating the impulse to sycophantic partisan loyalty that did so much harm during the Bush Administration. Is there evidence I’m unaware of that these kinds of reforms are happening? Because I haven’t seen any, and I can certainly point to ongoing intellectual corruption, financial corruption, and sycophantic loyalty within the conservative movement (criticism that still results in the messenger being labeled a traitor).
This isn’t to say that I won’t keep encouraging Congress to pass the kind of health care reform I’d prefer, as opposed to what President Obama favors, or that I won’t vote for any Republicans – I will if I regard them to be the better candidate – or that “the Democrats are better” (though at present I think they are less inclined to involve us in unnecessary foreign wars – you’ve gamely admitted that the Iraq War was a mistake in hindsight, but how many among the 2012 contenders will say the same thing? Isn’t that disconcerting?).
It is to say that if I’m going to prefer Republicans as a general matter, or identify with the conservative movement – as opposed to the political philosophy of conservatism – I’m going to need to see evidence that I’m not signing up for a repeat of 2000 to 2008.
Instead I am seeing Sarah Palin cited as the preferred presidential candidate among the base in 2012, never mind concerns about her inexperience, because she’s “authentic,” and she “excites people,” and she “understands what we’re up against in the War on Terror,” and because “she’s been treated worse by liberals than any other politician, and that must mean she is doing something right.” I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.
That’s why I am sympathetic to the “conservative dissidents,” despite my many policy differences with them. Unlike the base, I don’t think politicians who are squishy on substance did in Republicans. I think what brought down the right is a corrupt conservative movement, without insufficient capacity for constructive criticism, and beset by heretic hunters who denounced anyone engaged in critical thinking. Long live the dissidents. Long live debates. Long live partisan and ideological disloyalty if it means routing out corruption.
Am I wrong?